IN THE early morning hour, my brother sits on the
window ledge of his third floor apartment and wonders if
he’ll survive the fall. The Santa Anas have swept in, and
between gusts he closes his eyes, the bare branches click,
click against one another, the dead leaves swirl and scrape
across the street. The Santa Anas have a metallic taste, a
desert heat drying up every pore of cold sweat. Another
blast rattles the window, his boxer shorts flap, goose
pimples shiver down his legs, he climbs back inside, closes
the bedroom window, the noise from the wind and trees is
In the bathroom he splashes cold water on his face and
rinses out the metallic taste with toothpaste. Enough light
slips through the porthole window for my brother to see
himself in the mirror. Though he can’t hear me, I talk to
him. Sometimes he talks to me, never really out loud, more
up in his head to himself, but I feel he must know I’m
listening. When I’m with him, I try to stay away from
mirrors; not that he’ll notice me, I have no reflection to
anyone other than myself, but rather it makes me sad that
he always looks down and off to the side. Though he is my
brother, sometimes I catch myself starring at his face; his
cut like cat features, high cheekbones, long eyelashes, and
eyes that are set perfectly apart can make a girl forget
her train of thought. He doesn’t realize that though, as
he sees his face is more inspired by a Picasso.
He sits at the edge of the tub, cool tiles beneath his
bare feet; a siren echoes, and his left leg begins to pump
up and down. He cups his hands over his ears and tries not
to think about me in the hospital. Twigs, that was my
nickname my dad gave me, because I was so little and
skinny, not in an abnormal bony-kneed kind of way, more
like a gymnast when they are just beginning.
Since it was my brother’s first time in a hospital, he
chose his blue blazer with gold buttons, a new tie, slacks,
and loafers. I’m three years younger than he is, but my
brother thought I was a million times more courageous. I
held on in a coma for two weeks, my bone-white skin, caved-
in cheeks, and eyelids all paper-thin. It felt like the
moment right before you fall off to sleep, when you want to
move but you can’t, even though you can hear and smell
things around you, like the steady tock-tock-tock of the
heart monitor, and the bitter odor of rubbing alcohol. My
tiny body felt lost in the starched sheets. My brother
thought, how could they fit so many tubes into a nine-year-
My dad was unshaven, dark circles stamped under his
eyes, and the same sweater he wore smelled of pots of
coffee he drank through out the day. My mom and dad never
brought my brother Chris to see me. Though they told him
what happened, he was five and really couldn’t understand.
Mom stood up from a chair at the foot of the bed and
intercepted my brother to fix his tie. Her makeup was
skillfully done, her flowing hair highlighted and freshly
cut just below her ears, her new blouse she had bought that
day gave her the added lift she needed to visit her
daughter for a third day. But it was the whiff of Scotch
on her breath that made my brother tilt his head back and
to the side.
My dad gently placed his hand on my shoulder to tell
me my brother was here. When I didn’t respond, a swell of
heat curled up from my brother’s stomach, and he swallowed
back the taste of vomit. He rushed to the bathroom, shoved
a couple towels along the bottom of the door, grabbed the
cold rim of the toilet bowl, and quietly threw up. For a
while he sat, counting the tiles along the floor to keep
from passing out. He wanted to go away; that’s what he
called it “going away” in his head. When he heard the
doorknob jiggle, and my mom called his name, he got up to
rinse out his mouth with cold water. He noticed in the
mirror he wasn’t crying; his skin had turned ash-gray. He
kept slapping his cheeks, trying to get some color, before
he went back out. He wanted to get the specks of vomit off
his new tie, but he stained it by rubbing it in with a wet
paper towel. Mom squeezed passed the blockage of towels,
closed the door and folded the towels.
"If you don’t leave it alone you’ll only make it
worse," she said, buttoning up his blue blazer.
He didn’t listen to her.
"Put your tie in your pocket and don’t tell your
"It was just an accident," he said.
She followed him over to the bed where Dad put his arm
around his shoulder and never asked what happened to his
"Tara, look who’s here," he said. "It’s your brother
Though my brother didn’t say anything, it felt good
for him to hold my warm hand. Then he tried hard to think
of some memories; he tried very hard, but they felt
misplaced by someone other than himself. For a moment he
heard my playful laughter, like children running in a
schoolyard, giggling while spreading their arms and
imagining catching currents of air. In the dense silence
that now knotted my family together, my brother searched
for other memories of me to keep near. Again the forms
flickered and twisted and never righted as the years
passed. The images play back like a movie, the scenes have
hiccups, as if the frames have been chopped out, and some
days, when it’s really bad an entire reel feels like it’s
missing. He leaned in closer, listening to my breathing
sink to a slow rhythm; sink so far down he had to dig to
hear me exhale. I know he wanted to shake me and wake me
up; come on Twigs, but my hand was so pale, so limp. He
stood there for what felt like forever before my mom pried
us apart. After my dad drove him home, he said he could
come back another day, but my brother never did.
My brother grabs some covers off his bed and curls up
on the cool bathroom floor, the sound of my laughter rocks
him to sleep.
WHEN I died, I didn’t see the long dark tunnel with a
bright light at the end that would take me up above the
clouds. For a moment, I thought it was just a dream, being
in a coma and all, because when I awoke, I was back at my
Victorian home on North Main Street in Honeoye Falls New
York, a one-stop-light town named after the Seneca Indians,
and the waterfall that once powered the old saw mill. I
was sitting on our front porch, wearing my favorite jeans
with the red and yellow flowers embroidered along the
cuffs. I knew what had happened when I saw Father Otto
coming up our walkway, carrying his leather bound bible. He
never arrived with a bible. He liked to visit my mom after
we had dinner and try to get her to go to Sunday mass.
Instead, he would join her for a Scotch and soda or brown
water as we called it, and as the evening went on their
drinks became a darker shade of amber. My brother’s
friends would joke that Father Otto liked to sit close to
them during Sunday School, though he never touched them,
they’d imitate his voice by lisping.
On that day when Father Otto walked up, he looked down
in my direction, and I thought since he was a priest he
must be able to see me, but he went right passed me without
saying hi. Though I realized I didn’t know much about
where I was, I felt as though I was near and far all at
once, as though I was waiting without knowing where I was
going. Even now I don’t like to think about what happened
next; I slowly felt myself becoming a stranger. Then I
thought that maybe I didn’t exist; I decided if I just
stayed home something or somebody would probably come along
and tell me where I should go next.
After the second day, I had a feeling no one was
going to come, which was fine with me I didn’t want to go
anywhere. That afternoon I met Charlene. Char-Char I
called her. She was riding by on her bike, and had been
the only person during the first days that had noticed me.
She was a year older and I told her my name was Tara, but
everyone called me Twigs. She had crimped hair that her
mother helped her with every morning. About two years ago,
Char-Char drowned in her backyard above ground pool, when
she fell in and the pool cover twisted around her. I
remember overhearing my mom talking about it on the phone,
though I didn’t know who she was, news like that travels in
a small town. It just happened that Char-Char’s mom was
inside vacuuming, and never heard her scream, and Char-
Char’s been with her mom ever since that day.
It was a relief that I didn’t have to go into details
about how I was hit by a drunk driver, walking home one
night with my brother after school. She said; word travels
fast in a small town. I nodded. She asked if the driver
survived? I told her no and that’s the last we ever talked
I was so glad to meet Char-Char, and that I had a
friend. I also knew my brother would be happy that I
wasn’t alone. After she explained where we were, I asked
if I was being punished, like grounded to my room?
“No one does anything bad to you.” When Char-Char
spoke she fidgeted with her little silver studded earrings,
the same pair I wished my mom let me get. “You can do
everything you did before.”
“I can stay with my family?”
“Sure you can.”
I hugged her I was so happy, but when her arms stayed
at her sides, I stopped jumping up and down.
“For how long?”
Char-Char shrugged her shoulders.
“As long as I want?”
“But we’re supposed to go up above the clouds.” I
pointed to the sky. “Where Heaven is.”
She didn’t bother to look up.
“Are you sure we’re really here?”
She looked a little confused by my question.
“I mean that we exist.”
“I can see you and you can see me.”
She had a point.
“Do you want to play in my backyard?”
“I have to go,” she said. “My mom isn’t feeling good.”
Right then I understood why there was no excitement in
Char-Char. A year after Char-Char’s accident, her parents
got divorced and her father remarried. Her mom lived alone
in the house, and some days she called in sick to work,
when she was really just too depressed to get out of bed.
The day after Char-Char’s accident her mom pulled Char-
Char’s jean skirt out of the laundry hamper. The skirt was
part of Char-Char’s favorite outfit that went over her
leggings she wore when she went roller-skating. She had
new Sketcher roller skates with blinking red toe-stops.
Her mom stuffed the skirt in her shoulder bag and carried
it with her. For the first year she never washed it, and
when she was alone, sometimes she liked to gently hold it
up to her face, breathe in, unable to explain the smell,
she closed her eyes and remembered it was her daughter.
IN THE darkness my brother jerks awake to the steady
beep of his alarm clock, cool tiles beneath him, he goes to
his bed. It’s six a.m. The cab will be here any minute to
take him to LAX. He throws on a clean shirt, jeans, and
work boots, grabs his duffel bag, and practically leaps out
Celebrity Cab’s headlights drift across whitewashed
stucco buildings from Mediterranean courtyards to
condominiums with underground parking structures. My
brother lives in one of many post-war housing units. The
avocado-colored shutters and curved two-person balconies
overlook patches of green lawns. The cab driver wheezes
and shimmies to dislodge his round body from behind the
steering wheel. When he lifts my brother’s lightly packed
duffel bag, he labors like a saddled camel reaching its
full height. He refuses my brother’s help. I get in with
my brother and he tells the cab driver what airline. When
the cab driver leans back to fasten his seatbelt, the air
in the front seat squeezes out like a sigh. "I love
Hollywood, all year like summer." He has a Russian accent.
The name on his hack license has too many consonants for my
brother to pronounce. "When your age I was in army." He
doesn’t use his blinker when he turns onto La Cienega
Boulevard. "I come from my country for the sun," he says.
"But I leave my two boys."
The taxi stops suddenly, pressing my brother and me up
against the front seat. He almost runs a red light. I
tighten my seatbelt, but my brother has forgotten to fasten
his, and he shifts closer to the window while the cab
driver rambles about his life.
The light turns green.
"Your hair short like soldier," he says.
"I’m an actor."
"What kind acting you do?" He excitedly adjusts his
Kangol camp; it has a dime-sized hole in the back.
It’s too early in the morning for my brother to talk
about it; he gives a vague answer, this and that, hoping
the driver will get the point.
"You look like you got a lot going on, like something
interior. I drive cab for long time." He swivels around
to look at my brother. "Good actor have something
My brother tells him to please keep his eyes on the
"Yes, you’re right, I talk too much, terrible burden.
In my country it got me trouble."
He doesn’t say anything more, until he tries to beat
another light at Pico, where there’s a yellow sign for
school children crossing.
"Slow down," my brother raises his voice. "God damn
it, slow down." The cab blows by the sign. "Didn’t you
see that sign?"
"Yes, we make light. No officers." He makes the
sound of a siren. "Never have accident."
My brother doesn’t want to start an argument, and end
up in an accident, so he opens the production package with
the crew list, script and shooting schedule. The cab
driver glances over his shoulder and reads the title aloud,
"Two Hearts. Ally McDonald, big star. I read about it in
Variety. Big studio picture."
"You read about it in Variety?"
"Yes, I’m screenwriter," he says. "I have couple
projects for development. Never put all eggs in one
basket." He gives a wink in the rear-view. "I got one
project for Ally. Academy Award. Maybe you get it to her
Oh, no, here comes the pitch.
"We get together when you finish film. There’s nice
part for you," he opens the glove compartment. "Let me
give you card."
Paperbacks pour out on How to Sell A Screenplay, How
to Make A Million Dollars Without Trying, Good-bye To Fear
Of Success. A half-pint of Black Velvet anchors loose
script pages. With one hand on the wheel he reaches under
the dash; the car swerves over the solid dividing line, the
tires squeal, and white headlights burst across the
windshield. In seconds he levels the cab off while the
high-pitched scream of a car horn whizzes by. I’ve
forgotten to breathe, it’s coming back, inhale then exhale.
My brother is clutching the tops of his thighs. Then he
hands my brother his card that says, "Screenwriter."
My brother tells him, “thanks,” and finally the cab
driver does the speed limit. A piece of silence fills the
cab as we pass silhouetted oil pump jacks, pumping
Hollywood for its black gold. The silence continues as we
ride through the darkness.
THEY’VE PUT my brother up in a suite at the Sheraton
on Fisherman’s Wharf. He lies on the king-size bed,
sunlight filtering through the drapes, widening across the
deep carpet; his fingertips are black from reading the
morning paper delivered to his room. For the third day,
the call sheet has him on "will notify," which means he
can’t stray far from the hotel. Doubt my brother will have
to work, word from the set is Ally’s been difficult. He
roams through the separate living room, flicks the lights
on and off in the bathroom, shuffles over to the drapes,
peeks out at the wonderful view of the bay. The red
message light on the phone hasn’t blinked this morning, and
he wishes he had someone to call to go and hang out with.
He checks his phone, no calls, and no texts. They’ve given
him a per diem to spend. It’s enough to dine out three
times a day with a friend. The money is stiff and smells
new and he crinkles it up in his jean pocket and slips away
to find a place to eat.
At the Buena Vista Café, my brother decides not to put
his name down on the list for a table. He doesn’t feel so
alone sitting at the counter where orders are shouted into
the kitchen. The heavy aroma of freshly ground coffee and
roasted beans makes the place feel warm and cozy. He
orders a cup, and passes on breakfast, which he never
Outside, the chiming bells of a cable car lets off a
handful of passengers. When my brother was two years old
he called the Strassenbahn in Dresden, where we were born,
"ding-dings." Our mom grew up after World War II, and
after the Americans rebuilt the city. I read about how the
bombings caused a firestorm that burned for a week. She
really never talks about her childhood, and the stories of
what her grandparents went through. Even when my brother
asks, Alex is the only one in the family that asks; she
doesn’t talk about it much. He does remember her saying
that the first light she ever saw was in a movie house.
When I was a few months old we came to America, and
according to my mom, my brother lost his fluent German on
our flight. My dad stayed behind to finish his military
services. My brother remembers that Mom drank Bloody
Marys, and he told her that the wing was falling off. So
to keep him occupied she gave him crayons to draw the view
from the window. When we landed in Rochester, my mom asked
our new Oma and Opa in English where a bathroom was to
change my diapers; my brother had to pee so badly, he was
clutching himself. "That little boy speaking German is no
grandson of ours," Oma said. “I can barely understand
them.” She turned to her husband, who said nothing. A
warm current gushed down my brother’s legs and spotted his
new leather lace up shoes my mom had bought just for the
trip. Mom told him, “not to cry in front of them, this is
America, and they’d find a toilet.” It was too late, he
wet himself right there, and would have to sit in the back
seat of my grandparents’ car, head down, smelling like
urine, until Mom could unpack, and change his clothes.
After that day, Mom never spoke German to my brother
again, and we never shared any stories with Oma and Opa
about our arrival in America. My brother didn’t lose
everything on our flight. He still remembers the word for
Clang, clang, the cable car passes, and a little boy
and girl, no more than ten years old, race in front of
their mom towards the cafe door. She yells, "Keep an eye
on your sister." Then a girl around my brother’s age
enters, wearing faded jeans and a flannel shirt under a
man’s oversized wool jacket. She counts her change and
pays for two coffees to go. While she waits, she glances
at him, pretending not to notice him; she scans the café as
if she may find someone she knows. Girls are always doing
this around my brother; their heads slightly tilted up just
above his eye-line, they do a 180 survey of the room,
thinking they wont get caught checking out my brother. She
finishes her sweep of the café, and now she’s waiting for
my brother to notice her. To my surprise he realizes she’s
looking at him⎯he never realizes these things⎯he drops his
eyes to his coffee cup, embarrassed that something may be
out of place with him. I’m about to kick the bottom of his
stool to get him to look up, but I know he never gives
himself enough credit. He glances sideways at her; she
smiles, turns up on her tiptoes, and walks out with her to
go order. She waits outside the glass door, so he can see
her. His scalp becomes tight, and his heart thuds against
his chest. By the time he thinks of some opening line,
she’s kissing a guy, her age, and hands him the other
coffee. My brother swivels his legs under the counter, and
glances back at her, and gets a knot in his head, when she
waves good-bye. Though I’m unable to whisper words of
advice in my brother’s ear, I know this moment of
difficulty he’s having understanding why that girl needed
to be admired by him will be short lived, and he’ll
eventually meet a girl that shows herself as more than half
a promise. I’d like to see him meet a girl, but I have to
admit, I don’t think any girl is good enough for him, and
if I were alive they would have a hard time getting past my
screening process that I would, in one way or another, make
my brother aware of.
Between breakfast and lunch the shouting of orders has
stopped, and the silence around him deepens until he
realizes he’s the only customer in the cafe. He could hang
out on the set, but if you’re not working, it’s a lot of
standing around waiting for a single scene to be set-up and
shot. The first time I went to a set with my brother, I
couldn’t believe how many hours it took to set up a shot.
They only shoot a couple of pages and then it’s right back
to standing around waiting for the next set-up. Instead of
ordering another cup of coffee to keep him company, he
leaves a twenty five percent tip, and wanders the hills of
San Francisco in search of the highest elevation.